“Any alpine route with one good pitch is destined to be a Rockies classic,” Maarten said, grinning. “And this one has at least six.”

“The descent has to be quick and straight-forward to become a classic,” I replied.

We had been on the move for some 16 hours, and were making our way down a 3rd class gully in hopes of finding the tail of the mountain before darkness fell.

“This descent is terrible!” Maarten said. “At least we didn’t come up this way.”

“Yeah, no one is ever going to climb this route,” I concluded.

We made a quick rappel in a light drizzle, and found our way to the scree cone signaling the exit from the loose descent chasm. We descended the final 600 meters down to the river in the last rays of light, thankful to hit the Tonquin Valley trail, knowing all that was left to do was follow it back to the parking lot at the base of Edith Cavell.

A week prior, we were lounging under the shade of a large umbrella encapsulating the majority of Maarten’s porch. “Exshaw life!” he exclaimed, a pilsner in hand. I was sipping a virgin tonic and rhubarb syrup originating from the stalks growing in the backyard.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m still feeling pretty wrecked from Yosemite,” I told him. “I think if I rest this week I might be in shape for a quick hit over the weekend. I’m out for any bigger multi-day missions.”

I had spent the last few weeks slowing recovering from a viral infection that was affecting my throat, energy levels, and psyche. After 5 weeks in Yosemite, I hadn’t given my body adequate time to recover before jumping right back into a sport climbing project above Canmore, and some elevation training for an upcoming expedition to India.

After a mellow (ish) week, we hit the icefields parkway on our way north to Jasper. Two years prior, on a traverse of the Trident Range, Maarten had noticed the big, steep northeast face of Oldhorn Mountain. Just sitting there. 600 meters of quartzite, without any routes on it. “Such an obvious objective,” he had told me. Although hard to imagine it hadn’t been climbed, I remembered that this is the Rockies, and adventure is climbing not quite as sexy as it once was. These days, the majority of climbers flocked to Squamish for a summer for splitter cracks and solid rock. What more could anyone want?

We were denied a bivy permit by Parks Canada, a reminder to not even bother trying to deal with an understaffed bureaucracy, administering policy briefs instead of common-sense decisions. Thus, we grabbed a camp site in Kerkeslin, arriving just before the weekend crowd. Our alarms rang at 3:30 am, and we both looked down at the peanut butter and banana bagels stacked on a green plastic plate between the front seats. “Coffee first,” I declared, and off we went to the Tonquin Valley trailhead, 30 minutes away. After a quick trip to the hostel outhouse (a sign read “OUTHOUSE FOR GUESTS ONLY. PUBLIC WASHROOM 2 KM UP ROAD”… seriously?) we were off. Seven kilometers down the trail and we were at the first campground (which was only half full, despite being “fully booked”). We ditched our big packs to retrieve on the way out.

A kilometer down the trail, I had realized that I had left my lunch in the cooler of my truck camper. “I still have a bunch of bars,” I told Maarten, “Probably 1000 calories!” Maarten packed a small day pack while I put on my harness and backpacked the ropes. I passed him my water bottle, headlamp, some extra layers, and lastly my snack bag… My snack bag! That blue nylon stuff sack with the duct-taped bottom to seal the hole where the chipmunk had chewed through and stole a precious blueberry Larabar that day sport climbing at the Coliseum! I stuck my head far down into the 50-liter pack. It was nowhere to be found. “Um… Maarten… I kinda screwed up…”

“C’mon what is it?” he asked.

“I didn’t just forget my two delicious wraps,” I said. “I forgot all my food. I don’t know how it happened. It’s not like me. But here we are, and I guess the day will just be a bit less enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.”

“Oh man! That really sucks!” Maarten replied. “I guess we’ll be on half rations. I brought some extra food. You can eat most of the bars since I have this leftover pizza. I’d give you half of that but it’s smothered in cheese.”

Maarten approaching the unclimbed Northeast face of Oldhorn Mountain.

Off we went, rustling through the forest, feet wet with morning dew, and an hour later breaking out into the scree slope below the northeast face of Oldhorn. “Let’s climb the best-looking line!” Maarten said.

“Seems reasonable,” I chuckled, swatting a swarm of mosquitos attacking my face.

It was 9 am and Maarten was starting up the first pitch of the striking prow jutting from the face. “Guide’s lunch, good for two,” I smiled, as I repacked our shared day bag. “This bag is heavy! Glad we didn’t bring more food!”.

It was a later start than we had envisioned, and we were already wondering whether the steep quartzite wall would benight us. Would it still be an unplanned bivy if it was foreshadowed before noon?

Maarten’s first block led through steep and exposed corners, which were surprisingly moderate given the plethora of crisp square edges littering the wall. Progress slowed on pitch 3, as the singing of Maarten’s hammer indicated his tenuous position. I followed his great lead up “the beak pitch,” struggling to remove the pecker pitons he had placed to protect delicate face climbing. “Nice job, that was exposed,” I said, upon reaching the belay, validating his cautious and thoughtful progress upward.

Maarten starting up “The Beak” pitch.

“I think I’ve got one more in me,” he said, “then you can take over for a bit.”

Above the belay, Maarten stemmed up a deep corner, which abruptly ended at a steep roof. Trying once, twice, thrice, to follow the overhanging jug rail around and up from right to left, he pumped out, lowered on the rope to the no hands rest below, and swiftly passed the roof by climbing directly up and left. “I’m just going to belay here,” he said, only 15 meters above me. I was a bit bummed the pitch hadn’t gone free to start, and wanted him to come back down so it could be re-led. The reality is the belay we set was completely arbitrary. He could have just set a belay from his last no-hands rest. All the moves had gone free and thus we carried on.

I grabbed the rack at the top of the roof and set off, climbing four pitches over moderate terrain. The feature that we were climbing had two massive gendarmes before reaching the headwall leading to the summit ridge. Instead of climbing up and down these towers I opted to cruise left and skirt the edge of a large gully, careful to stay far enough to the side to be out of the line of rockfall coming from above. An exposed fin brought us from the back of the second tower to the base of the headwall. A steep black corner veered upwards. I was psyched.

Two body-lengths of Creek splitters (Photo: Maarten van Haeren)

The “Zion” pitch.

Two body-lengths of Indian Creek style cracks on fiery orange quartzite led to a long and sandy corner system. I stemmed and jammed around loose blocks and grainy features, careful to test the blocks I weighted and not trundle anything down onto Maarten below. The climbing was technical and serious, and demanded my attention. I finally reached a large ledge below the dark corner. Maarten followed “the Zion pitch” with ease, pulling out lots of loose blocks along the way.

There seemed to be a few options above. I opted for the largest corner system, and started off up and left of the belay. After 10 meters of easy but loose crack climbing, the corner started to look more chossy, and I decided to make a difficult hand-rail traverse right, into a different corner, this one right facing. The climbing was steep and burly. Hand-jams, technical stemming, and fists through a roof. I haven’t done enough Rockies summer choss wrangling to say, but I thought this climbing was pretty good! “Way better than your average Rockies alpine route!” Maarten exclaimed, reaching the ledge at the end of the rope stretching pitch, dubbed “the corner”.

Leading up “The Corner” pitch (Photo: Maarten van Haeren)

Maarten following “The Corner” pitch.

We were now in the middle of the headwall, and the exposure grew with each step upward. The turquoise river ran far below in the valley, the summit of Mount Edith Cavell seemed close to level with our position. Maarten led off, climbing two pitches of easy loose climbing – not exactly what we had expected half-way up the headwall, but thus these features are always more three-dimensional than they appear from below. Even before starting up the route, we had noticed the abrupt change in rock marking the final pitch to the ridge. White and pink quartzite reeled back, in horizontal stacks, full of discontinuous roofs. There was a weakness on the right side, and now looking up at the final pitch, Maarten passed me the rack. “Happy to have a Yosemite climber on my rack!” He said.

“Psyched to be out here with you too buddy,” I replied.

The “Bloc Party” pitch (Photo: Maarten van Haeren)

I nibbled half a bar and started up “the bloc party” pitch. The pink quartzite was shattered into gigantic blocky features, all seemingly stacked one on top of the other. I banged my hand against each block, no longer listening for the sound of attached rock, but rather for the blocks that seemed the least detached. I climbed slowly and meticulously, grabbing steep juggy holds, placing big cams, and pulling into and around corners and roofs. I reached a state of full focus, unaware of the world outside of the radius of my extended arms and legs. Wild! I crested the ridge, hollered “Off belay!” and brought Maarten up, to where we could finally sit down, coil the ropes, and take the climbing shoes off our throbbing feet.

The summit tower looked less imposing from up here. We had breached the castle and only needed to tip toe up the final spiral staircase to the top. We scrambled across the ridge and up the final hundred meters, a series of blocks leaning this way and that, somehow suspended above the abyss. It was 7:30 pm, 10 and a half hours since we had started up. We took a moment to savor the fruit of our labor, the panoramic view of the Ramparts, and the monstrous Mount Geikie guarding the northern end of the range. We could see the rain from a couple thunderstorms in nearby valleys, reflecting and scattering the evening sunlight like a crystal on a windowsill.

With three hours of daylight left, and a long and convoluted descent ahead of us, we shared a summit candy bar, our last, and began the long downclimb on loose ledges through scree-hell.

The view of the Tonquin Valley from the summit.

“Any alpine route with one good pitch is destined to be a Rockies classic,” Maarten said, grinning. “And this one has at least six.”

“The descent has to be quick and straight-forward to become a classic,” I replied.

“Yup, no one will ever repeat this thing.”

Only time will tell.

“Ha!” Maarten’s wife, Lin, remarked. “You were like his lunch lady… Lunchlord!”

Lunchlord Buttress (5.10+, 600 m)

FA of the Northeast Face of Oldhorn Mountain, Tonquin Valley, Alberta


Approximate route line.